A Hunger Artist | Study Guide

Franz Kafka

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A Hunger Artist | Context

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Modernism

Literary modernism emerged as a genre in the early 20th century and continued through World War II (1939–45). It is often defined by the American poet Ezra Pound's (1885–1972) call to other writers to "make it new" by leaving the traditional modes and subjects of writing behind. Modernist writers experimented with different structures of writing to express and describe the drastic political, social, and cultural changes of the early decades of the 20th century. Many writers felt that traditional literary modes and structures were no longer adequate to reflect the new world in which they felt they were living, and they sought new ways to express themselves. In the decades before modernism emerged, many writers believed that they must follow the traditions, structures, and forms of previous modes of writing. While the 19th century was characterized by formal poetic structures and conventional, realistic narratives, modernism gave birth to radical new techniques such as free verse (poetry without a regular metrical scheme) and stream of consciousness (narrative technique intended to mirror the flow of thought and experience), as well as bold experimentation in subject matter. At the same time, the field of psychology emerged with the pioneering work of thinkers like Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) and Swiss psychologist Carl Jung (1875–1961). This new way of understanding the human mind began to influence the way writers portrayed the inner lives of their characters, particularly in regard to their place within the larger scope of humanity. In "A Hunger Artist," the main character constantly grapples with a sense of alienation and despair caused by the fact that his art is not understood. He struggles to find his place in the world, and he is confronted with an audience who loses interest in him when he refuses to be a commodity.

Another impact on modernism was the catastrophe of World War I (1914–18). The world had never before experienced a war fought on such a scale of reverberating destruction. Many of the writers and artists of the time struggled to depict the profound sense of loss, fragmentation, and alienation that shaped their generation. Much of modernist writing grapples with the loss of faith in universal truths or belief in authority and the lingering sense of disillusionment the war created. Truth and authority became things to question rather than to believe in wholeheartedly. Another effect of World War I was the rise of industrialization, urbanization, and bureaucracy, all in the service of capitalism. This led workers to feel increasingly alienated from the goods they were producing for mass purposes. "A Hunger Artist" demonstrates some of the modernist ways of thinking through its depiction of alienation and the way society's shifting attention leaves the hunger artist behind. Other writers of the era include Irish author James Joyce (1882–1941), British writer Virginia Woolf (1882–1941), and American author Sherwood Anderson (1876–1941). Franz Kafka's depiction of modern anxiety and alienation in his writing led to the coining of the term Kafkaesque to describe writing with the qualities of nightmares or lack of logic.

Allegory and Parable

An allegory is a kind of story in which people and symbols stand for larger ideas in blunt, obvious fashion. Allegories are often found in fables and parables, which offer morals or lessons for the audience to realize through their understandings of the allegorical characters and actions. As a literary device, allegory can be found throughout the history of storytelling, from Greek philosopher Plato's (c. 428/427–348/347 BCE) "Allegory of the Cave" (which depicts the experiences of sense and reality for people living in a cave) through popular stories and morality plays of the Middle Ages (5th century–15th century). Most parables invite the reader to look for hidden meanings represented by the literal characters, setting, and action in a story. Often the story is told in a way that readers can discern an obvious philosophical or spiritual meaning from the story, which is why many parables endure as stories that are told repeatedly in order to reinforce a lesson. The Christian Bible also uses allegory, and many of its readers rely on allegorical interpretation to glean the morals of the stories it contains. In "A Hunger Artist," Kafka makes allusions to these biblical allegories in the character of the hunger artist, yet his references hint at a different meaning.

Many of Kafka's stories have been compared to parables because of allegorical characters such as the hunger artist, but Kafka refuses to give readers obvious interpretations or easy moral lessons. The ambiguity of Kafka's meaning is a hallmark of literary modernism.

Performance Art and Professional Fasting

Performance art requires an audience to witness it while it unfolds, unlike a static painting or photograph that can be hung in a museum. It requires the elements of time, space, the performer's body, and an audience. In this way, it is an event rather than something permanent, though it is often documented through a medium like photography. In "A Hunger Artist," the nameless hunger artist's performance is defined by the 40-day fasting limit imposed on him, as well as observers and an audience who watch him in his cage while his body dwindles away. Performance art is a tradition in many cultures around the world and is often associated with religious and ritualistic practices in its early inceptions. It often contains elements of dance and theater, but it is usually less conventionally defined than those two disciplines alone. In the 20th century, the modernist art movement led to a resurgence in performance art. Groups of artists, including those influenced by futurism and Dadaism, performed art pieces at public events for audiences to witness. Futurism, a visual style that emerged in Italy after World War I, was especially interested in the speed of modern life and the importance of the machine. The Dadaists called for new modes of artistic expression to challenge conventional artistic modes and represent the new, fragmented post-war society.

Fasting as a public spectacle emerged in Europe during the 19th century, and during Kafka's time, hunger artists were found throughout Europe and America. Its greatest popularity was during the 1880s, and like the hunger artist in the story, fasts were usually limited to 40 days. One of the most popular performers was an American man named Dr. Henry S. Tanner. Another famous hunger artist was Giovanni Succi, whom critics consider the inspiration for "A Hunger Artist." Succi began his fasting performance career when he was 32 and conducted more than 30 fasting performances over the course of 20 years. Hunger artist performances were controversial due to the difficulty of ascertaining whether an artist had truly abstained from eating. At the time, it was considered an endurance sport akin to weight lifting. Yet public interest in hunger artists waned by the 20th century, possibly due to the rise of political protesters who used hunger strikes to call attention to their causes.

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